Rashtrapati bhava!

It is superfluous to catalogue the yeoman services Pranabda has rendered... No wonder the Congress is facing difficulty in finding a new FM

Now that Pranab Mukherjee’s election as the next President is as good as assured — indeed the surge in the support for him, even from Opposition parties, is assuming the proportions of a mini-tsunami — a look back at his long and chequered, sometimes like a rollercoaster, career is timely and instructive.

It is a slight variation of Abraham Lincoln’s “log cabin to White House” story. For this remarkable 76-year-old man, it has been a journey from a remote village in rural Bengal to the corridors of power in New Delhi. These he first walked and then strode. And now his ascent to the highest office in the land is only a month away.
As with any self-made man, Mr Mukherjee’s beginnings were very modest. His father, an ardent freedom fighter and a staunch Gandhian, was in jail most of the time. The family was therefore woefully short of money. Young Pranab had to walk more than two miles to go to school, where he was at the time of Independence and Partition.
By the second half of the next decade, however, he had earned a masters’ degree, found a teaching job in a district college, and married Surva. (They have two sons and a daughter.) He also dabbled in journalism, occasionally writing in Desher Dak (Call of Motherland). However, politics was beckoning all the time, and the young, pipe-smoking “professor” took the plunge. The Indian National Congress, the party his father served all his life, was Pranabda’s natural choice. In the son’s case, however, this didn’t last long.
For the Congress in West Bengal then was in the iron grip of Atulya Ghosh, an authoritarian party boss who would have been perfectly at home in the Tammany Hall. At one stage he expelled from the party a respected leader, Ajoy Mukherjee, whose only fault was to insist on inner-party democracy. Ajoybabu formed a new party, Bangla Congress. The younger Mukherjee threw his lot with
the new party, soon becoming its general secretary.
In 1967 and then in 1969, Ajoybabu nominally led two shortlived United Front governments in West Bengal that were actually dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was around this time that Mr Mukherjee was first elected to the Rajya Sabha on the Bangla Congress’ ticket. New Delhi at that time was in the throes of an intense power struggle between Indira Gandhi and the syndicate of party bosses, of which Atulya Ghosh was a member.
Presumably discerning Mr Mukherjee’s potential, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi encouraged him to join the Congress and appointed him deputy minister in one of the economic ministries where he made a mark for his industriousness. Shortly after imposing the Emergency in June 1975, Indira Gandhi decided to replace the minister of state for revenue in the finance ministry with Pranabda. He held this job until the Congress Party lost power in 1977. The Shah Commission, appointed by the Janata government to inquire into the “excesses” of the Emergency, had some harsh things to say about the revenue department’s doings. Pranabda’s detractors have resurrected them to besmirch his name at this late stage.
When Indira Gandhi returned to power spectacularly in January 1980, Mr Mukherjee was one of the few Congress leaders to lose the election. Even so, she included him in her Cabinet first as commerce minister and then as finance minister — that underscored her confidence in him. Who could have thought then that his steady rise in politics would turn into a precipitate fall just two months after she fell to an assassin’s bullets? For, in December 1984, as soon as Rajiv Gandhi won a mind-boggling four-fifth majority in the Lok Sabha, he exiled Mr Mukherjee from not only the Cabinet but also the Congress Party. Pranabda formed a party of his own but it didn’t amount to anything. I remember seeing him in Parliament’s Central Hall those days, sitting alone and sipping coffee. The reason why he fell from grace has never been stated clearly. But its broad contours can easily be deduced from circumstantial evidence.
On the day Indira Gandhi was killed both Rajiv, only a general secretary of the Congress, and Pranabda, the seniormost minister in the defunct Indira Cabinet, were in Calcutta (now Kolkata). On the mournful flight back to Delhi, there was a private conversation between them. Apparently the subject was the established procedure for choosing the successor of a Prime Minister dying in harness. Whatever was said seems to have given Rajiv the impression that Mr Mukherjee was expressing his own prime ministerial ambitions. There can be no other explanation for the summary and draconian punishment that followed. Nor should it be overlooked that the needless and damaging delay in finalising his candidature for the presidency had also something to do with the trust deficit dating back to 1984.
Remarkably, it was Rajiv himself that brought Mr Mukherjee back into the Congress, but he did so on the verge of losing the 1989 election to V.P. Singh. It was only in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s time, therefore, that Pranabda held ministerial office again, first as commerce minister and then as external affairs minister. The Congress’ defeat in the 1996 general election sent it into the wilderness for eight years. It is superfluous to catalogue the yeoman services he has rendered ever since 2004 when the Congress came back to power because these are well-known. Those who say that he practically ran the government are not exaggerating at all. No wonder it is proving difficult to find a new finance minister and a new Leader of the Lok Sabha.
After Rajendra Prasad, the republic’s first President, Mr Mukherjee will be the first incumbent of Rashtrapati Bhavan with comparable political experience and maturity. To expect him to add lustre to the office of head of state would be a safe bet.

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